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Island County cops protest possible layoffs

Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson addressed the picketers Monday morning.  - Liz Burlingame/Whidbey News-Times
Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson addressed the picketers Monday morning.
— image credit: Liz Burlingame/Whidbey News-Times

Protesters unhappy with a decision that could lead to the layoff of two Island County Sheriff's deputies hit the picket line early Monday morning.

The protest, including deputies and their supporters, closed off Sixth Street in Coupeville and ended peacefully, despite flaring tempers.

A few angry shouts were hurled toward some of the Island County commissioners as they stepped out of their offices in the administration building. A man who thought he recognized Commissioner Angie Homola hollered, "Acknowledge us Angie!"

It may have been the first public police protest in Island County history.

The "informational" picket, featuring signs declaring such things as "Safety First" and "Fund Public Safety," was organized by the Island County Deputy Sheriff's Guild. The event was not a strike.

Last week, the commissioners and Sheriff Mark Brown were at odds over budget cuts. The sheriff was asked to trim 5 percent of his $5 million budget.

To avoid losing deputies, Brown said he could lay off a records clerk and Dave Hollet, the director of Emergency Management. Hollet would be replaced by a lieutenant in the sheriff's office.

The decision was informally supported by commissioners John Dean and Helen Price Johnson, with Homola voicing opposition.

However, after testimony from Hollet and Emergency Management volunteers that law enforcement officials didn't have the training to do the job, Price Johnson said she no longer backed Brown's proposal. Dean still supported the sheriff's prescribed cuts, but was outvoted.

Brown said that there would be little choice but to lay off two junior deputies.

"The commissioners said that due to public pressure, they changed their mind. But there's public pressure to fund public safety," Darren Crownover, guild president, said, referring to Monday's crowd of protesters.

Across the street, a smaller group of picketers had gathered to support the commissioners. Erica Schumacher said the deputies' picket was part of a "political move."

"If the commissioners were Republican, that group would be praising them for only asking for five percent," Schumacher said.

She added that she wanted the sheriff to consider other means of reducing the budget, such as looking at overtime or two-hour shift overlaps.

"We don't want any jobs lost. In that way, we're in agreement," she said.

Commissioners Dean and Price Johnson spoke with the competing crowds. The protesters appeared resistant to Price Johnson, as many frowned and shook their heads as she answered questions.

Dean told the crowd, "I hope this doesn't turn into a Democrat versus Republican thing. It's about public safety."

Crownover said the loss of two deputies would come at a difficult time for the department. Island County Sheriff Mark Brown was able to add two additional deputies to his staff in 2008, but he was then forced to lay them off earlier this year while they were still at the academy. In addition, he cut a third deputy position through attrition during that round of budget cuts.

In this round of cuts, he will lose two more. Next year, a couple of deputies who are in the military reserves may be sent to Afghanistan.

"We man eight deputies to a precinct, so that's the loss of a precinct over two years," Crownover said. "We might not be able to have 24 hour coverage."

Dick Audette and several others from Clinton said they came to picket out of concern for safety.

"What if you call 911 and no one came?" he said.

Detective Ed Wallace said the picket is a one-time effort, and he didn't expect protests to continue after the commissioner's final budget hearing later Monday.

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